Small experience with Michel

This is just my small memory in Kahuzi-Biega.
During my first filming experience in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in August 1997, I met a young moderate Congolese driver called Michel who later surprised me with his knowledge and skill in mechanics.

In May 1997, the new government was set up after an armed conflict that started in November 1996. The situation in Bukavu and surrounding area was still unstable and people were suffering from power cut, water shortage, fuel shortage etc. In short, the life looked very tough, even to the eyes of an insensitive foreigner like myself.

With Michel, our film crew and I we were driving in a small Suzuki 4×4 on a road to our lodge. The car suddenly stopped on the way and the engine wouldn’t start again. We didn’t have any idea what was wrong.

Michel simply said in a low voice ‘I know it.’ and got off the vehicle, open the bonnet, and immediately started to dismantle the carburetor without the slightest hesitation.

We were all not sure if he could really solve the problem without a proper inspection of other parts of the engine.

Michel just continued and dismantled the carburetor into pieces and started to clean these small parts carefully with some petrol that we were carrying in jerrycan. In thirty minutes or so, he reassembled and mounted it back on the engine. He started the engine and he succeeded right away. “Wow!”

As we never imagined that he had that mechanical skill and just thought he was an ordinary driver, we were all surprised and heaped praises on him. According to Michel, due to the poor quality of petrol available in the area, there is always some dirt in petrol available in the area. So to him it was a very common case. But even so, we were all surprised to see how quickly he made the judgment and how smoothly he dismantled and reassembled the carburetor. It gave me an impression that maybe difficult lives like the ones in this country would make people wise and sharp. Otherwise they can’t manage their life and survive.

Today, the life in this area is still difficult for most of the local people. But I somehow believe that the people here have the strength and potential capacity to overcome the situation and make a way towards a better future. The experience with Michel might look like a trifle thing but it’s not a ‘very’ small thing in my memory.

The first time for tourists to be wearing masks in the KBNP and a revival of gorilla tourism

Tourists wearing masks while viewing the gorillas

Now as a common park regulation that was set recently in the home range countries of gorillas, tourists visiting the gorillas in the Kahuzi-Biega are recommended to wear masks while watching the gorillas. The Mountain Gorillas Veterinary Project (MGVP) in collaboration with the KBNP authorities brought lots of masks, which are worn by tourists and gorilla tracker teams everyday. It is a great initiative to prevent a disease transmission between gorillas and humans.

If we look at the history of Kahuzi-Biega National Park, tourists started to visit the gorillas in early 1970’s. At first two gorilla groups, Casimir and Mushamuka, were habituated to the human presence by Adrien Deschryver with his two efficient trackers, Pilipili and Mishebere Patrice. In the early days of gorilla tourism the Park regulations on the gorilla visits were not strict. For instance, a group of visitors could consist of more than 30 people to visit the gorillas! And while taking still photographs, tourists could use a flashlight as they like. In early 1990’s the regulations were changed and the number of tourists visiting one gorilla group was reduced to 8 people for a day. The use of a flashlight was banned. A sick person wasn’t allowed to get any access to the gorillas. All these rules were introduced to minimize the human impact on gorillas.

The number of tourists in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park increased to 3,000 tourists a year in 1988-1990 thanks to the well-known film “Gorillas in the Mist”. But it shrunk in the mid-1990’s due to the devastating wars in the Great Lakes region. Between 1994 and 2005, only about five visitors visited the gorillas in the KBNP while the most population of gorillas and other wildlife were hunted by gun and consumed as bush meat by several different armed factions. It was the most difficult time for the park and the surrounding communities because the income generated by the tourism is supposed to be the resource of park management and rural development, which was reduced to almost none.

But little by little, the tourism started to revive in the KBNP in 2007. The number of tourists increased from 20 visitors in 2006 to 200 visitors in 2009 and it seems that the number will continue to grow more in this year 2010. Although there is still a long way to go we began to see a glimpse of hope for the future.

While the conservation effort to protect the gorillas still continues, the POPOF launched the Silveback Kingdom Trekking Agency (SKTA) early this year. We took tourists to Orchid Safaris Hotel in Bukavu for some nights and drove them to the Park. After they viewed the gorillas in the forest they visited some communities around the park. They could visit a tea plantation, tea factory or quinine tree plantation (a medicinal plant against malaria). We could also take them to a catholic monastery where they shared their picnic. They made a city tour and could buy some woodcarvings made by former poachers who were converted into artisans through one of the POPOF projects.

Tourists buying masks

All the income generated by this SKTA activity is used as a resource fund for the POPOF’s important activities.

If you are interested in visiting the gorillas and our community, please contact us by CLICKING HERE.

Environment and gender around the habitat of the Eastern Lowland Gorillas

Out of the four subspecies of gorillas on the planet, the Eastern Lowland Gorillas (ELG) is facing the biggest challenge due to the long lasting war in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. As known worldwide about the human pressures on them and their habitat in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park by way of bushmeat, traffic of babies, trophies, and the extraction of firewood, mushrooms, medicinal plants, minerals and so on. The protected area is remaining in the highland side as if it was an island of forest floating in the middle of the ocean of poverty.

carryingseedlingIn the lack of buffer zone since its creation, the KBNP has been suffering from illegal cutting for firewood. Rangers on patrol arrested local people inside the park. Men, young or aged, were arrested mostly for hunting, trapping wildlife, digging minerals, farming and so forth. Women were arrested for dry wood and mushroom collecting in the park in the majority of the cases. Many mountains are seen without bearing any large trees on around the eastern part of the park that is a highland area. Women and men had to pay fines every time they are arrested despite their poverty level.

POPOF and its team mobilized communities around the park to plant trees in their fields in order to avoid the illegal penetrations into the park which would finally cost them money every time. Between 1997 and 2009, over 1.5 millions of seedlings have been distributed to the communities. Women received 50% of these trees. Men received 40% and young people aged 13-17 received 10%. They all planted the seedlings in their farms, gardens and along the boundaries. Women are more serious in taking care of the planted trees until their harvesting periods.

Today it is observable that the number of arrested women in the park for tree cutting has reduced. Tree planting is playing double roles; (1) to secure park that is the shelter of the ELG and (2) to contribute to the fight against CO2. Women, especially who live closer to this endangered subspecies of gorillas, are more eager to plant more trees. They feel that they can harvest these trees and school their children, feed and buy clothes for their families thanks to the presence of the gorillas near their home.

People in other world do benefit indirectly from the oxygen produced by the trees that were planted by the people who once couldn’t think beyond just exploiting the natural resources for their needs.

“Together as one, we can face the climate change”
Thanks.

The town of Bukavu nowadays

The town of Bukavu, the capital of the South Kivu was built in the 1910’s during the period of Belgian colonization known as the Belgian Congo. It is located on the shore of the Lake Kivu and neighbors the Kamembe town of the West Province of Rwanda, only separated by the river Ruzizi. The Belgians built this beautiful town to accommodate approximately 4,000 people and the houses made of burnt bricks, soil and sand added the beauty to this town. The population of this town reached 10,000 people in the 1960s. Tourists came from all over the world to enjoy the beauty, rich green of this town, and moreover, the gorillas in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park.

Some big changes occurred simultaneously early in the 1990’s when the war started in the Great Lakes region. In 1994 the hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees came into the DRC and settled around the town and the park. In 1996 the devastating war that was to chase out the dictatorial power started in the DRC. This war had two different facts, (1) the impact on the natural resources which was to extract coltan, cassiterite, gold, wildlife, etc. by international dealers who used dealers from the neighbor countries, (2) the concentration of the population in the small town of Bukavu that was caused by the influx of displaced people who escaped from the rural areas due to the high level of insecurity. Many young girls, old women were raped by mostly unidentified armed people: the pronounced pillage and massacres weighed on people.

IMG_6311-smallLocal dealers earned money from the mineral trade and built houses without choosing areas in the hilly town of Bukavu. As a result, the monthly house rent exceeds $3,000 for the first class houses and $300 for the last hand houses. Nowadays, over 1 million of people are concentrated in the little town that was built for just 4,000 people.

In addition, the earthquake that occurred on February 2008, shook soils and houses. It poses a danger for the future. Many house fall down even twice a month when a heavy rain falls.